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higher learning

It sounds like the lead-in to a bad joke: "How many PhDs does it take to ….."?

In this case, however, the question is a serious one: How many doctoral graduates does a country like Canada need to fuel an innovative, creative economy and society?

There's a current of pessimism circulating at present, with tough labour market conditions prompting doubts about our ability to make good use of the stream of doctoral grads from Canadian universities. Before we jump to conclusions, however, some perspective may be in order.

Concerns about an over-supply of PhDs are hardly new. When the Lamontagne Committee of the Senate began its multi-year review of Canadian science policy in 1968, it heard evidence that Canada would soon produce "twice as many PhD graduates as we need." Even if the estimates were exaggerated, the Committee concluded, they clearly indicated an "undesirable market situation that is likely to emerge soon."

Sen. Lamontagne was worried about preparing for an estimated 11,500 PhDs across all sectors by 1973; as of 2006, the number of PhDs employed in Canada stood at over 130,000. What happened in the intervening 35 years? Certainly, the ranks of university professors increased markedly, as new institutions were formed and postsecondary enrollments skyrocketed. But more importantly, an increasingly knowledge-hungry economy created jobs for those with advanced degrees, from industrial engineers to epidemiologists to financial analysts.

That was then, of course, and this is now. Unemployment rates for doctoral grads remain in the low single-digits, but there are legitimate questions about the extent to which the economy can continue to produce high-quality jobs for new PhDs – particularly with enrollment rising at some six per cent per year over the past decade, and average retirement ages edging upwards. Surveys show that many new doctoral grads are dissatisfied with their current employment situation, and pessimistic about the guidance they have received.

But the news isn't all gloomy.

First, new PhDs are graduating into an increasingly complex, globalized labour market. That means heightened competition for high-skill jobs, but also new opportunities for work beyond Canada's borders. Both international and Canadian students are eyeing academic and industrial job markets in emerging economies, and policy-makers are beginning to understand that this kind of "brain circulation" may in the long run be a good thing for Canada. Domestically as well, new areas of demand have emerged, such as the increase in teaching positions at colleges and polytechnics, where advanced degrees are increasingly the norm. Outside of academia, new industries continue to emerge, and for every PhD barista, there are plenty of others finding work in emerging fields like business analytics, educational software, or the video games industry.

Second, universities have begun to reconsider the nature of doctoral education itself. The process is achingly slow, but there are efforts to move beyond a "self-reproduction" model, in which doctoral students who didn't go on to academic positions were viewed as "lost" investments. Universities are grappling with how to link doctoral studies more effectively with a range of jobs beyond academia – whether that's through increasing numbers of internship opportunities for students from across the campus, more creative use of digital technology, or more flexible approaches to the dissertation. A 2012 report by Marilyn Rose of Brock University (herself a former dean of graduate studies) profiles the range of professional skills training programs being integrated into graduate programs across the country. While some of these are pretty rudimentary – a few hours of communications training here, a dose of resume writing there – others are more transformative, offering a mix of general and department-specific workshops, courses and seminars, effective outreach to students, and the ability to recognize new skills via an official co-curricular transcript. More needs to be done to integrate broader job skills into PhD training, but the winds of change are beginning to blow.

Finally, it's worth remembering that despite the increases over the past decade, Canada still graduates fewer PhDs per capita than the U.S. and other major competitor countries. Perhaps less well understood is that fact that a larger share of Canada's new PhDs are in science and engineering than is the case for most other high-income countries, from the U.S. to Germany to Japan. So it's not immediately clear – at least based on quick international comparisons – that Canada produces too many PhDs, or that they are concentrated in the fields with less obvious employment prospects beyond academia.

The current debate on PhDs is to be welcomed. We need to ask tough questions about how many PhD students Canada needs, how they will be trained, and how we can create high-value jobs for our top students. But equally, we need to avoid falling back on easy anecdotes and misleading myths. If not, the joke really will be on us.

Brent Herbert-Copley, Ph.D., is vice-president, Research Capacity, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.